A Dancing Dickens “Christmas Carol”

Ryan P. Casey plays Bob Cratchit in “What The Dickens!”
Cynthia Clayton Photography

“A Christmas Carol” celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.  First published as a novella in 1843, Charles Dickens’s classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption has been adapted again and again for film and stage audiences around the world.

From Dec. 14 to Dec. 23, Deborah Mason’s Cambridge Youth Dance Program will present its 10th anniversary production of “What The Dickens!” It’s a dance-theater production blending contemporary dance, ballet, tap, hip-hop, flamenco, projections and narration as it tells Dickens’ timeless story of transforming greed into kindness, love and humanity.

Under the direction of Broadway veteran and Boston Ballet alum Leslie Woodies, performances will take place at John Hancock Hall. Marking his fourth year in the role, Lexington native Ryan P. Casey will play Bob Cratchit, the hard-working father of Tiny Tim.

Praised by The New York Times and known for his extraordinary tap dancing, Ryan is a performer, teacher, choreographer, and dance writer once named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” and one of the Boston Globe’s “25 Most Innovative People Under 25.” 

Earlier in his career, he appeared on television’s “So You Think You Can Dance.”

As an educator, Ryan has worked for colleges, studios, festivals ,and arts programs around the country, as well as for Julliard’s Summer Performing Arts program in Switzerland. He is the recipient of grants from the New England Foundation for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. 

Aside from solo work and dancing with his ensemble, Off Beat, he’s a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine and Dance Studio Life magazine. Formerly on the faculty at Boston University, he’s currently pursuing his M.Ed. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

We spoke during a break in his busy schedule. Following is a condensed look at our conversation.

Q. Many theaters present “A Christmas Carol” around the holidays.  What makes “What The Dickens!” different?
A. Well, it’s told through such a variety of dance styles . . . We take all of the characters . . . and give them different dancing styles and personalities on stage, which is really cool.

Q. Can you give me an example?
A. The Ghosts of Present, Past, and Future tend to change every year a little bit.  We have a Flamenco Ghost.  We’ve had a Ghost that does African dance. We’ve had a Ghost that does Indian dance . . . We have Jacob Marley’s associates tap dancing. There’s such a range. We’ve got kids this year doing step (dancing) . . . I love the diversity of it.

Q. Were you a fan “A Christmas Carol” growing up?
A. I read Dickens for the first time in high school and I’ve always been a fan since then.  I took a college course on Dickens and read a lot of his work but I don’t think I had read “A Christmas Carol” until I joined the show. Maybe shortly before.

Q. At 6-foot-8, you’re what some might call “Tommy Tune Tall.”  Has that been a plus or a minus?
A. I think it’s given me a unique and memorable stage presence . . . I’m lucky to work within a dance form that celebrates diversity of shape and body type . . . People have told me, over time, that I don’t really stand out, unless that’s the point.  I can blend in.  I can work with a partner and make it happen.

Q. You write about dance quite a bit.  I particularly enjoyed your Dance Magazine article giving advice about the “business” of show business.   How dancers can protect themselves financially.
A. I think we don’t talk enough about it.  I would really like to feel that more dance programs at the higher end level have those kinds of conversations and prepare students for what freelancing is. What contracts are.  Things like that.  I still think there’s a lot of reluctance to talk about the business because it involves talking about money and having some really open and honest dialogues about how much people are making in the field. I would love to see a shift in that kind of dialogue.

Q. You have some interesting credits as a teacher.  What motivates you?
A. I think it’s the opportunity to share . . . To be in a room with people that are hungry to learn new things and take in new information.  It’s nice to be able to share what I know, pass it along . . . What I know to be true. What I’ve found in my journey. To share that with other dancers and see how that changes them, how that sparks them.

Q. Tell me about the Julliard program in Switzerland.
A. It’s an opportunity to work with kids from all over the world.  I teach tap and jazz as part of this kind of big arts camp . . . in a really a beautiful setting in Switzerland.  It’s been a real gift to do that.  To meet a lot of wonderful people from Julliard and collaborate, kind of do something different with my teaching . . . Planning out two weeks of programming and choreography for a diverse group of young people.

Q. Is there one particular moment in ”What The Dickens!” that holds special meaning for you?
A. I think the penultimate scene of the show – we call it Sweet Dreams – is when most of the characters, the Ghosts and Marley and so forth, are wishing Scrooge goodnight while he’s sleeping, and then depart. They’re going away for good now because Scrooge has changed.  He’s going to wake up in the next scene and be a good person.  It’s very moving. 

Q. You’re creating lasting memories for others in “Dickens!,” but it must keep you busy around Christmas.
A. It does pre-empt what we can do during the holiday season.  Every weekend we’re in rehearsal.  I do wish I could see more things around the holiday season . . . That’s kind of the one downside.  But the payoff is worth it.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
“What The Dickens!,” Dec. 14 to Dec. 23, John Hancock Hall, 180 Berkeley St., Boston. Info at cydp.org.